My recent post about Paul Kurtz generated quite a bit of attention, more than I expected. I do think that the issue needs to be discussed further.
To start with, as already mentioned, I recognize the valuable work Kurtz has done for secular and skeptical minded people over the course of decades. He has been an influential person, and has been the founder of a number of very important organizations like the CFI and Prometheus.
And yet, in the recent years, he has been falling short. He has been getting (unjustifiably) upset at his fellow secularists who have been, at worst, guilty of “stirring the pot” too much, while at the same time, shifting his focus away from the religious right and all the harm they cause.
Look, for instance, at the following thing Kurtz said during an interview in 2010:
Kurtz worries that, even worse, the momentum he helped build toward a less faith-bound world is now overly focused on attacking religion, at the expense of other goals.
“It’s become fixated in recent years on atheism, the criticism of religion,” he said. “And I think that’s a strategic blunder. Not just a strategic blunder, but a philosophical and ethical one, as well.”
Are you kidding me? You can look at all the harm religion causes, and tell me that criticizing it is not an important goal non-believers should pursue? Denying gay people equality, denying women affordable access to birth control, undercutting stem cell research, pursuing prayer as a remedy for bad climate as opposed to following the science, all the attack on freedom of expression in the Islamic world…where even to start? How can going on the offensive against something causing all this harm being a philosophical and ethical blunder?
As for it being a strategic blunder, Kurtz is simply wrong. Recent polls indicating a sharp decline in religiosity, along with highest percentage of atheists ever, indicates that the secular community cannot be all so mistaken in the path it is pursuing. In fact, we are better off now than all the decades when Kurtz and others like him set the tone.
At the same time, he sees a place for believers in the broad spectrum of secular humanism — in large part because, without them, any movement toward societies based on principles of humanism, rather than faith, will go nowhere.
Mr Kurtz, please google “Sweden”.
“Let’s say the atheists are successful, and religion continues to decline, so what do you have, a vacuum?” he said. “That’s really the burning issue in America today: How shall I live? What should I strive for?”
It is amazing that a self-proclaimed skeptic like Kurtz relies exclusively on his hunch, and completely ignores the evidence. Where does he get the idea that this is “the burning issue” for them? Is Kurtz even aware of the work sociologist have done on this subject?
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman has studied the phenomenon of secularization for many years. In his book “Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion” he tells us about his conversations with people who were brought up in religious households and then gave it up. Curiously, very few of them told him they did so after some deep philosophical pondering. Different people give different reasons for giving up their faith, but none of them (shocking!) talk of a “vacuum” in their lives as Kurtz seems to think, even though very few of them needed a philosophy to replace it. Zuckerman’s earlier book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” investigated the subject among irreligious Scandinavian nations, and failed to find any hint of a vaccum, even though they did not tell him they needed a philosophy to take the place of the religion they were not brought up in.
Really, does Kurtz think everyone has a “Jesus shaped hole” in his/her heart a la C S Lewis, or an Islamic “fitra” directing them to god? If not, then religion is someone that we never needed in the first place. Does anyone who has ever been on crutches misses them when they are no longer needed? Kurtz seems to be doing quite a bit of psychological projection: he thinks he own obsessions are everyone’s.
And what’s up with Kurtz’s anger at “militant atheists”? Supposing that he doesn’t agree with the tone or method of his fellow secularists, how can he justify using such pejorative, inflammatory words? We see other people, in politics or other areas, having tones that are much harsher than a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Yet they do not get called militant, unless they literally pick up arms and commit acts of violence. Kurtz is indeed reinforcing the prevalent societal prejudice against atheists, and we can expect better from the leaders of our movement.
I, for one, am happy that Kurtz-style accomodationism has lost out in the market of ideas and is on its way out.